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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(7 January 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 1, 7 January 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Norman Thomas Converts the Heathen

There is no question about it. Norman Thomas has a remarkable talent for charming middle class audiences and for getting himself into the headlines. These are gifts which any leader of the left might well envy – and try to emulate. The energy and ingenuity with which he peddles painless “socialism” must be admired.

But I have long suspected that one reason Mr. Thomas so readily fascinates and persuades the middle classes is because, in his eagerness to win them over, he leans so far over in their direction as to make his own position – to the political layman, at least – practically indistinguishable from that of his audience. He is so very idealistic and respectable and so excessively anxious to be "fair” and to avoid stepping on any of the prejudices of his listeners, that what usually seems to happen is that the missionary leaves the meeting firmly committed to the cause of cannibalism. At least, that’s the way it looks to the cannibals.

Remarkable confirmation of this theory comes from a personal letter which last week happened to come into my hands. It was written by a rather conservative young married woman living in Chicago to an extremely conservative older woman in New York. I excerpt the section dealing with a recent debate between Norman Thomas and Hamilton Fish in Chicago – one of a series being held throughout the nation:

“The thing was posted as a debate between Norman Thomas and Hamilton Fish, but ended by being a symposium on ‘Can We Keep Out of War?’ They both forgot their politics (for once) and were two good Americans agreeing on the same subject. They both were of the same opinion, that we could keep out if we would stop policing the Pacific, mind our own business, and stop trying to play ‘God’ about affairs that did not concern us.

“It was truly a wonderful evening, and I left Thorne Hall with a feeling of joyousness at being an American and an enemy of Revolution and uprising. Why? Oh why can’t people accept things is they are when they know from past experience how terrible can be the results?”

It is clear that this missionary to the heathen – who “forgets” his politics so conveniently – will never end up in the cannibals’ stew pot. Rather is he preparing bigger and better stew-pots for future missionaries who are foolish enough to insist on remembering their politics.

American Standard of Living

The great argument of those who defend the capitalist system in this country is that the American standard of living is the highest in the world.

Such orators should be referred to the second chapter of The Structure of the American Economy, the survey by the National Resources Committee on which I commented last week. In this chapter, called The Structure of Wants, the tremendous class differences in this “democracy” of ours are charted in unmistakeable form. Here we learn that the richest 20% of the nation’s families receive every year half the total income of the country, getting as much as the remaining 80% of the families put together. Here we learn that half the families in the country somehow keep going on an income of less than $1,000 a year, and one-tenth on less than $340 a year.

These are family incomes, it should be remembered. The average American family consists of father, mother and two children. According to these figures, half the people of the United States have less than sixty-nine cents apiece per day with which to buy their food, clothing, shelter, etc. Even, allowing for the single individuals who are counted here as family units, you still would get something under a dollar a day per person.

Bread or Books?

A table on page eleven shows concretely just what this huge difference in incomes means. Here we find that a consumer with an income of between $5,000 and $10,000 a year eats five times as much food (in dollar value) as a consumer with an income between $500 and $750 (who is by no means at the bottom of the ladder, since at least 15% of all families have less than $500 a year), that he spends eleven times as much on books, 30 times as much on recreation, and 45 times as much on his children’s education. This last item is especially significant, since such differences in education intensify and perpetuate class differences.

People can get along without shoes, without any clothes to speak of, without books and chairs and medicine, but the two things they must have are food and shelter. In these charts, the lower the income level sinks, the bigger is the percentage spent on food and housing, until when you get down to the lowest tenth of the families the struggle for existence is so grim that three-quarters of the income must go for these two necessities of life. Contrast this with the very wealthiest families, those with incomes of $10,000 and over, who spend only 40% of their incomes on food and housing.

The extent of starvation and semi-starvation among the masses in this land of plenty is strikingly shown by a single statistic in this chapter: the authors estimate that if the national income were increased by two-thirds, expenditures on food would be 44% greater than they are today. “This is particularly significant,” they add mildly, “since it is so often stated that the demand for food is limited.”

Mass Markets – and Mass Poverty

All of this has ominous economic, as well as social, implications. Our mass production industries depend on a mass market to make money. But the tendency of monopoly capitalism is to concentrate income in the wealthy classes and to reduce the masses to ever lower depths of poverty. Economically, this is ultimately fatal for a number of reasons, one of them being that the masses spend almost all their income on consumer’s goods (thus keeping the market humming) while the wealthy spend comparatively little and pile up ever bigger savings (which can only be used to build more factories, whose products must then still further crowd the market). The handful of families at the top, those with incomes of over $10,000 a year, save half their income, while all families with $l,000 or less income (more than half the total number of families in the country) actually spend more each year than their income, going deeper into debt the farther down the scale their income is, until finally the bottom ten per cent spend more than half again as much as they take in each year. [1] (This piling up of debt also works to undermine the mass market.)

Already the process of concentration of wealth has gone so far that half the national income goes to the richest fifth of the nation’s families. And these save from 10% to 50% of their incomes, depending on the degree of their wealth. It is these families, furthermore, and not the masses, which will get the lion’s share of any future periods of boom prosperity. “An increase in consumer income of 33%,” write the authors, “could be expected to result in an increase of only 25% in expenditures on consumption and an increase of nearly 100% in savings.” The only solution of this particular contradiction of our monopoly capitalism would be to increase the incomes of the great mass of “consuming families” at the expense of the incomes of the handful of “saving families.” This is more or less what the left wing of the New Deal was half-heartedly trying to do up to the economic collapse that began in the fall of 1937. But since the wealthy families controlled the system, and since the New Dealers had no wish to basically alter this system, the fight did not get very far. It has now been completely lost in the martial music of the War Deal.

Footnote by ETOL

1. Corrected in line with the correction published in the column the following week (Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 2, 14 January 1940, p. 4.

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